$1.2 billion special education system overhaul announced

Associate Education Minister Jan Tinetti made the announcement at Berhampore School.
Photo: RNZ / John Gerritsen

The government promises to expand learning support to thousands more children with disabilities through a substantial overhaul of the $1.2 billion special education system.

Associate Education Minister Jan Tinetti said the plan was the result of a government review of support for children with high needs which began in April last year.

This would move from the current system where schools and families demanded rationed resources, instead giving families more control over the support their child receives and requiring teachers to take more responsibility for learners with disabilities in their classrooms.

However, details had yet to be decided and the Department for Education had been tasked with developing a business case by June next year, Tinetti said.

“We’re not talking about tinkering around the edges here, we’re talking about a whole new way of doing things.

“We know this is one of the most broken areas of education and it is something that not only the sector has been crying out for change, but also the families of young people who have been underserved.”

The changes would increase the number of children receiving disability support, Tinetti said.

John Tinetti

John Tinetti
Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

“We know from the social care agency that for every seven children who get support and learning aids, there are three who probably aren’t. That’s not good enough. We need that all young people with learning support needs get the right support when they need it.”

The changes were bold and significant, she said.

A Cabinet document released today said the changes would require significant ongoing new investment.

He said the Department of Education would remain the budget holder for special education funding, but would allocate resources in a way that best meets the needs of teachers and learning support staff.

A child’s family, teachers and ministry staff would decide what support each child needed, rather than leaving that decision to a panel that did not know the child.

The document said the new approach would increase demand as it would identify currently unmet needs.

Teachers would receive more training to work with children with disabilities and the Cabinet document said the government would try to tackle resistance from some schools and teachers to having children with disabilities in their classrooms, Tinetti said.

“This partnership works best when educators accept full responsibility for all the learners in their care. This requires changing long-standing attitudes and behaviors about learning support needs at all levels of education system, including school leadership, so that all students are welcomed and valued as part of their early learning or school community,” the newspaper said.

“Students with the highest needs still face persistent barriers to being able to participate, progress and succeed in their educational journey. Early learning centers and schools still do not receive adequate support to feel confident and able to support students with the highest needs.

The Department for Education would now make some changes, such as simplifying the learning aid application system, Tinetti said.

The Cabinet document redacted immediate changes that could be made, but said they would not create significant changes to the current system.

He said analysis by social welfare “indicated that about five percent of students are likely to have high unmet need at some point in their school career. This means that over the course of “one year, approximately 25,000 students may not be getting the support they need to engage and participate effectively in early learning or school.”

The document indicated changes in the operation of special schools.

“The integrated school network aims to remove the parallel system of support that separates students with disabilities and to ensure that these specialist schools are more integrated with local schools. This would allow students to move from one school to another according to their current needs.”

Welcome changes

The plan was announced at Berhampore School in Wellington, where Pedagogical Institute headmaster and president-elect Mark Potter said the government’s plan included things schools had long been asking for.

“You can’t underestimate how important it is that we finally have funding on the table. It’s been left out of so much scrutiny for decades, which is going to be a fundamental change for us,” said- he declared.

The proposed changes would take time to develop in detail, Potter said.

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Mark Potier
Photo: RNZ / John Gerritsen

Post Primary Teachers Association president Melanie Webber said the union was looking for evidence of a real change in the business case next year.

“There is an absolutely urgent need for this change. It has been heartbreaking for teachers to see the lack of support,” she said.

Christchurch director John Bangma was present at the launch to represent the Directors Federation and was part of a task force that advised the government on the review.

He was encouraged that the government was committed to substantial change and was taking the time to work out the details, he said.

“It’s a huge shift that can happen and we need to make sure we have the capacity to plan for it and deliver it,” he said.

“I have a lot of hope.”

The government’s estimate that 30% more children needed help was an understatement of the scale of unmet need, Bangma said.